BWW Reviews: Lincoln Center Festival Presents the National Ballet of China
Presented by the Lincoln Center Festival, on July 8, 2015, at the David H. Koch Theater, The National Ballet of China opened their 5-day run with The Peony Pavilion, considered one of the most famous love stories in Chinese literature. The modern production by the National Ballet of China (NBC) is an adaptation of the 1598 play of the same name, written by Tang Xianzu, which is often compared to Romeo & Juliet, published in nearly the same year.
This ballet is a treat for the senses. It's like a moving painting, moving as if through a dream. Contributing to this art in motion are set designer, Michael Simon; costume designer, Emi Wada; and lighting designers Michael Simon and Han Jiang; in conjunction, of course, with composer, arranger, and orchestrator Guo Wenjing, and choreographer Fei Bo. The Artistic Director of NBC, Feng Ying, gave the young choreographer the task of taking this opus, which originally took 20 hours to perform, to turn it into a two hour ballet. The result featured a striking collision of Eastern and Western dance.
The audience is brought into a world of vibrant colors, opening with beautiful hues of embroided blue and red, as well as white, which popped against a simple background, making an immediate impression. Du Lianiang, played by Zhu Yan, dressed in white and barefooted, sitting on a red draped chair, which is installed in a square, suspended by cables (which later rise above the stage in various ways), awakes from a deep sleep in which her subconscious has been playing with her emotions. As she returns to consciousness, she has a new awareness of life and is joined by two alter egos: the Kunqu Opera singer, played by Zhang Yuanyuan, dressed in a blue, embroidered, traditional silk robe and the charming Flower Goddess Liniang, danced by Zhang Jian, dressed in a red silk dress and pointe shoes. The Chinese flute solo of Wei Lan was not overpowering, but lent an aura of otherworldliness to the atmosphere, as did the singing of the Flower Fairies.
As the scenes changed, large pieces of scenery were descended on ropes: First, a large branch, nearly as wide as the stage, and later a single large, red peony joined the bare branch. This was all the more striking as the corps de ballet, wearing long flowing gowns, dancing on pointe with lovely flowing arms, moved in patterns. When the handsome scholar, magnificently danced by Ma Xiaodong, enters and partners Yan, now on pointe, in a love duet, he displays beautiful technique and a soaring spirit. Their energy is released into this dreamscape. While Yan floats through this dream, Xiaodong is strong and sensitive, powerfully partnering her with assurance and aplomb. It was a pleasure to see the glorious dancing and passion of these principals. She says farewell to her dream lover, later wondering if he was real or not.
In another scene, in the afterglow of the dream, Lianiang (the heroine) sees the tumbling stream, depicted by a single brushstroke, on a backdrop which descends, replacing the scenery of the previous scene, and a natural world devoid of passion. Here, the corps de ballet wears flowing gowns of yellows, greens, and lavenders. Again, we see a painting in motion. Ghosts of black and white impermanence arrive to take Lianiang away. The symbolism is striking. She dies for love. Snowflakes fall to mark her lost beauty.
In Act II, Liu Mengmei (hero) is uncomfortable and sees the portrait of the girl in his dream in melted snow. Again, a scene change brings another feeling, dark scenery and costumes. The judgment in Hell, the roaming soul was a bit of a surprise to me: Hell in Chinese lore? The infernal judge, in black with a long red beard, sends Liniang back to the mortal world after hearing how she ended her life for her dream love. She dances with her two alter egos, becoming one. Liu Mange searches for the true love he saw in his dream. Liniang arrives, seeing the man of her dream asleep with her portrait. They are reunited and they wed. Mortals, ghosts and gods all attend the wedding ceremony. The petals of peony flowers fall as the people in the dream disappear.
Not only is this a new story to the western ballet, but, it is another expression of art, much enjoyed by the audience, as well as myself. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, with which western audiences are familiar, the lovers come back to life and live happily ever after.
Photo Credit: Andrea Mohin